Take advantage of this moment in time to sell young people on industry careers.

For about 20 years, the most persistent problem facing PHC contractors has been the skilled labor shortage. Talented young people have been forsaking industry careers for a variety of reasons that have been detailed many times in these pages and elsewhere - the work is hard and unglamorous, school counselors turn their noses up, etc.

Now, for a brief shining moment - who knows how long it will last - the stars may be aligned just right to turn this situation around. The news media is filled with stories lamenting the outsourcing of jobs to low-cost foreign countries. Long a worrisome fact of life to factory workers, the outsourcing phenomenon lately has unleashed a tidal wave of angst among white collars as well.

Everyone from semi-skilled call center employees to computer programmers, engineers, accountants, etc., has found he or she is increasingly replaceable by bargain-basement persons willing and able to do the job from thousands of miles away. Suddenly, it seems that nobody's job is safe.

Except that's an exaggeration. Certain types of jobs will never be outsourced. Some types of work demand face-to-face customer contact or on-site manual labor. Plumbers, pipefitters and service technicians are among those who have jobs that cannot be done from remote locations.

Acts Of Desperation

Nor, when you think it through, can these jobs really be handled by cheap immigrant labor. I know there are parts of the country where that seems to be happening, but while undocumented immigrants may be fulfilling the roles, they are merely masquerading as plumbers and fitters. Most are low-paid task workers hired by desperate contractors who can't find any American citizens to do the work.

This is a shame. Construction jobs in general and our industry's in particular offer some of the most attractive career options not requiring a college degree. Moreover, trade apprentices get paid a living wage to learn their craft rather than shell out tens of thousands of dollars in tuition.

In light of these hard facts, it's always been something of a mystery why the trades have been such a hard sell. The surge of publicity about outsourcing may give JAT programs the added firepower needed to attract the kind of people needed. Youngsters with their heads screwed on straight want to know not only what the job entails today, but whether the jobs will be around 10 years from now.

The employment picture in construction looks a lot sharper than for many other industries. From February 2003 to February 2004, construction employment grew by 128,000, outpacing that of all other U.S. industries combined, which added up to only 113,000 in the same period. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a surge of 37 percent in the demand for HVAC technicians and installers between 2002-2012, while the need for plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters is expected to grow by 23 percent in the same period.

Employment opportunities have always exceeded the norm in our industry. It's just that the downsides have always seemed to outweigh the positives. The construction trades have languished with a reputation as a place for those who couldn't make the grades to get into college. Though always a false picture, the trades now shine brighter in contrast to so many more glamorous positions that are disappearing faster than you can say transcontinental telecommunications.

Senseless Economics

There is something that doesn't make economic sense about our industry's persistent skilled labor shortage that is now well into a second decade. Classic economic theory holds that where shortages exist, compensation levels will rise until reaching equilibrium. That is where there are as many people as needed in a given job category. Then when the supply shoots past demand, wages/benefits begin to recede.

Yet, wage growth has not kept pace with burgeoning demand in the PHC sector. If it had, there would be no skilled labor shortage. Most PHC industry surveys show average annual incomes between $35,000-$40,000 for nonunion plumbers, fitters and service techs. Depending on locale, union wages may go double that or beyond, but union labor no longer dominates the industry.

The nonunion compensation scales simply are not enough to make trade careers attractive to large numbers of smart young people. There are too many other ways to make 35 or 40 grand a year working jobs that are easier, cleaner and carry more prestige.

Those who think plumbers and service techs are worth no more than that will continue to have trouble attracting good ones, outsourcing or not. But for contractors with a better picture of their craft's value, the outsourcing debate couldn't come at a better time.

Olsztynski At ISH North America

Jim Olsztynski is a scheduled speaker at this year's ISH North America trade show held Oct. 14-16 in Boston. He will present “The Future Of Manufacturing In America” Saturday, Oct. 16 at 9 a.m. To register for the show, visit www.ish-na.com.